Fraser gets fired up for rallying

Fraser gets fired up for rallying

Myself and Alex before the rally
How the side of the car appeared!
Rhidian and Geraint assess the engine after our early retirement
The state of the car that crashed in front of us. Amazingly, the two men involved in the crash went back out on the track once repairs were done

As my heart thumped, and my hands froze, I afforded myself the occasional brave glance at the speedometer as by my reckoning, every straight signalled extreme speed, every corner represented high danger, and every screech of the brakes instigated panic.
These were the admittedly irrational thoughts that flew around my mind as I debuted as a rally co-driver earlier this month and to put my neuroticism into perspective, this was during a brief practice session, and not the real thing.

Offer came out of the blueFraser gets fired up for rallying

My foray into the world of motorsport came about after receiving a call from an old friend, Alex Moore, an international rally licence holder and veteran of more than 20 events, and who is currently performing well in the ongoing Gwent King of Epynt Championship.
He offered me the role as his co-driver in the annual Brawdy rally, hosted by the Pembrokeshire Motor Club, which he intended to use to customise himself with recent changes to his car ahead of his next Epynt event on July 26.
He explained we would be entering under the banner of Spill Response Wales, the company which he founded and continues to run so I accepted the challenge to try something completely new, knowing full well Alex was a trustworthy enough friend not to put me in untoward danger.
But on the contrary, his slightly blasé attitude to the whole affair unnerved me.
“Just to clarify, will your life be in my hands?” I asked.
“Don’t worry mate, it works both ways,” he nonchalantly replied.

Getting prepared for the big day

Alex never was the type to die wondering so on the Friday before the rally, it was with some trepidation I drove down to the G Jones Engineering Garage in St Clears – ran by the father and son combination of Geraint and Rhidian Jones and who help maintain and improve Alex’s Subaru Impreza, and Rhidian himself has vast experience in rallying as both a driver and a co-driver.
The four of us talked through the fundamentals, and after measuring up for my helmet and race suit, I sat in the car to gauge the set up and basic controls before Rhidian also went over the calls and terminology assigned to a co-driver, and we viewed YouTube videos of cars tackling the Brawdy track.
As introductory courses go, this was brief yet very helpful but  then it was time for the ‘test’ drive so I entered the car still feeling the after effects of two heavy days at the first Ashes test in Cardiff – but just 10 minutes later, I exited it feeling anything but bleary.

Sharp learning curve

 Fraser gets fired up for rallying
It was here that my novice status was exposed, as the seemingly rapid yet controlled speed with which Alex drove left me as surprised as I was startled. I didn’t remember rallying looking this fast on television.
What really took me aback was the manner in which we took corners. I soon learnt that braking in a rally car is far harsher, and occurs far later, than I had ever envisaged.
“If you don’t fancy it, now is the time to back out,” said Alex afterwards.
“No I’m fine, looking forward to Sunday now,” I swiftly replied.
As bare-faced lies go, this was up there with the best of them.

Not like anything else so nerves aplenty

Indeed, it is often interesting how the psychology of different sports affects people. During my time with Telegraph Sport, amongst other things, I have been in a cage with a professional MMA fighter, trained with highly rated boxers, and been thrown around by a Commonwealth Games wrestler.
Such tasks proved difficult in the extreme, and yet beforehand, I looked forward to them with great excitement. However, the prospect of competing in a high speed rally event, gave me a sleepless Saturday night.
My personal tension had not eased by 7am Sunday morning, as I met Alex, Rhidian and Geraint in Brawdy to prepare for scrutineering and to sort out the fast tracking of my Motor Sports Association licence, a compulsory requirement for anyone taking part.

Nerve-calming much needed

The dangers of motorsport are often well documented, and the stringent pre-race measures reflect this because every car is subject to thorough checks, and every competitor must wear the appropriate safety clothing.
Rhidian went through a map of the first two (out of six) stages with me, and helpfully wrote down pointers for certain areas of the track.
Alex meanwhile, did his best to calm my pre-race anxiety: “I don’t expect anything fantastic from you today as it’s your first time, I just need a calm voice in the car,” he said.
“There are some quick competitors here so a top 25 finish will be difficult.”
I didn’t disagree.
To put the cat amongst the pigeons, early morning rain had rapidly altered tyre strategies but  as the wet weather began to subside, Alex decided we would use intermediates for the opening stages.

Another welcoming face amongst the speedsters

Prior to setting off, I bumped into another familiar face in Ceri Morgan, a former winner of the Brawdy Rally and a Pembrokeshire Motor Club member who was helping run the day.
“You’ll love the adrenaline rush,” he told me.
To his credit, he also offered me some last-minute advice, but little did I know then that I would later require his assistance again in less jovial circumstances.

More butterflies before getting started . . .

 Fraser gets fired up for rallying
Alex and I were sent out 58th out of the 66 starters and as we rolled towards the line for our 9.56am start time, having already watched the earlier cars go out, the butterflies set in.
The early going took some getting used to, although Alex had instructed me to try and call two moves ahead (for example – easy left followed by straight right). It seemed simple on paper, but doing it under pressure whilst travelling at extortionate speed, was anything but.
Indeed, parts of the track with multiple bends, made for difficult navigation.
What I had underestimated, and what I expect few can understand unless they have been in a rally car, is the mental strength and sharpness required.
And yet, in my eyes at least, I began to get the hang of things. Dare I say it - fear was suddenly being replaced with excitement.

. . . But Fate was about to deal us a cruel hand

Alex had warned me that due to our starting place, we would encounter the problem of catching cars in front us, which would potentially slow our stage times. Little we did know however, that such a predicament would effectively end our day.
As we approached a second successive chicane, we watched the vehicle in front of us clip a stationary tyre, and roll over twice before landing on its side.
Following both the rules and etiquette of rally driving, we pulled over to help out, and managed to assist the driver out of the car before the three of us pushed the vehicle back on all fours and got the co-driver out as well.

Safety measures kick in

The stage was soon halted as paramedics flocked to the scene but once we had confirmation that both men were ok, we returned to our vehicle to complete the lap, but as Alex went to start the car - nothing.
Not envisaging a serious problem, we got the marshals to help jump start us – nothing.
We quickly rang Rhidian, who gave us further instruction to get her going again – nothing.
Eventually, Ceri and co towed us back to our starting position, and assured us we would be allowed to continue as soon we had sorted the seemingly minor problem out.
Unfortunately, the problem was not so much minor but major, as Rhidian and Geraint diagnosed a seized engine. In short, it was game over.
And ironically, having driven to Brawdy that morning wishing I was going anywhere but, the premature end to my rallying debut left me genuinely gutted.

Phlegmatic approach

It was only then I could appreciate the dedication and commitment needed to pursue such sports. Despite my disappointment, unlike Alex, Rhidian, and Geraint, I had not spent weeks on end preparing a car, only to see it ultimately come to nothing.
And I would not have to now spend hours, not to mention money, on sorting it out.
“That is rallying for you mate,” Alex told me diplomatically, “So dealing with things like this is part and parcel.”

And finally . . .

As we packed up, the two men who we helped came over to express their gratitude - and to my astonishment, once the smashed windscreen on their car was replaced, they were set to head back out.
I declined to scold them for denying me what would have been a definite Brawdy rally debut win but despite an anti-climatic end to my first real motorsport experience, I am better for it. The speed, the steering skills, the control, the concentration under pressure, the mental strength, not to mention the buzz – all concepts I now realise I have underestimated when sitting on the sofa watching sports like rally driving on television.
My sincere thanks to Alex, Rhidian, and Geraint for the opportunity, and should they be kind enough to offer again – then I’ll be back.